Saturday Night in Louisiana: Teddy's Juke Joint
I started out right here, then I went over there, and now I'm back up here! A sixty-one-year-old black man in a cape named Teddy Johnson bellowed that from the stage of his juke joint in Zachary, Louisiana. Underneath his cape, his red suit is obscured with money pinned all over it. The occasion is his sixty-first birthday party. On my party plate commingles a smothered turkey neck, a fried chicken wing, and the smeared remains of a piece of sheet cake. As I gnaw on the bones, Teddy relinquishes the microphone to the band, which lays right back into the groove as if the needle had been dropped.
Teddy's is the embodiment of "juke joint." The directions to get there are like a blues song: head up the fabled blues highway, Highway 61, north of Baton Rouge, turn down old Highway 61, go past the prison, and a mile down at the end of a gravel road you'll see a lone streetlight holding forth against the darkness. Down a long, gravel driveway lies this neon festooned wonder. Teddy proclaims his to be the last juke joint on Highway 61, and he's likely right; there is just nothing else like this around anymore. His exhortation from the stage can be read a number of ways. Primarily, he is referring to the fact that he was born in the house that serves as the juke joint, right where he stood on the bar's slightly elevated plywood stage. The over there is a dizzying tangle of holiday lights blinking in and out of sync, casting their erratic glow on an amalgam of bric-a-brac collected during Teddy's years as a DJ, spinning records in clubs with names like the Golden Rooster, Lizzie's Lounge, and the OJ Lounge. Holding court among all this is his massive DJ booth, adorned with teddy bears and an old "coloreds only" sign. The stage is "back up here," on stage at possibly the last juke joint in south Louisiana. The ceiling is covered with so many strands of holiday lights it looks like a homemade version of the Las Vegas strip. The furnishings are a history lesson of long-gone clubs, as Teddy can tell you what defunct nightclub every barstool and knickknack came from. I like lights and flashy stuff, says Teddy with a big smile. I was brought up that you don't throw away nothin'. Teddy opened his club in 1979 after a stint as a house painter -— the dry-erase board beside the front door boasts the self-applied sobriquet, "Your belly-rubbing, titty-sucking, nipple-squeezing painter man." Despite the brio in such a catchphrase, it was his mother who convinced him to start a place of his own. I was doing record spinning, but I figured I could be making more money at my own place. My mother told me, 'There's this old house back there, why don’t you make a club out of it?' Teddy's club spans the old and new definitions of a juke joint. Juke joints are a symbol, a place where you can relax, listen to music, and just have a good time. Most places back then couldn't afford a band, so they would have a jukebox, or a guy spinning records. Teddy does this very thing every Thursday night and between band sets, often talking over the record, singing along, cracking jokes, or calling out to people in the bar. The playlist runs the gambit from bedroom R & B like Teddy Pendergrass, to Baton Rouge blues artists like the Neal family, to classics like Bobby "Blue" Bland and B.B. King. Like the smooth upscale blues Teddy favors and most Baton Rouge blues artists play, his juke joint, glimmering out there in the woods off Old Scenic Highway, is a rectification of the common preconception of the blues—feral music played by blacks out in the fringes of town—and the desire of African Americans to transcend that image. Teddy kept the tradition of Sunday night blues jams—going back to the music’s origin in plantation days, when black musicians would gather on the one night they had off work—alive as long as possible until the city shut down his Sunday night shows, but local, regional, and occasionally national blues acts find their way to this little glittering shack in the woods on Friday and Saturday nights. The real night to go, though, is Thursday evening, or any weekend night when Teddy doesn't have a band booked, in order to experience one of Teddy’s DJ sets. He is Buddha in the lotus of his ornate DJ booth, his many-ringed fingers pulling from all tributaries of the blues, focusing mainly on slow jam R & B and "nasty songs," as one of my friends puts it. Teddy takes to the mic throughout the set in a stream-of-consciousness ramble of memories, shout-outs to people in the crowd, and bursts of self-promotion. Go there enough times that Teddy knows your name and he'll announce you when you enter the place, and you'll feel like Sinatra. Teddy's wife, Nancy, runs the kitchen, dishing up soul food until late in the night, the rock around which Teddy orbits, peacock-strutting in a killer suit and, if the mood hits, a cape. I got a pink crushed-velvet one, too, I wear on special occasions. The cape has links to the church, to royalty, to a personal sense of ascension. When I stopped painting houses, I decided I was gonna start dressing nice all the time and that’s where the cape came in. The thing that surprised me most about Teddy's when I first went there in 2006 is not that it was there but that I'd never heard of it. I've been on the periphery of the Baton Rouge blues scene for years, known a number of the musicians and fans, and I'd never heard it mentioned. It's only about fifteen minutes' drive from downtown Baton Rouge, but for most people in this sedentary town, it might well be on the moon. This book is intended to be a bridge to that moon, an invitation and a guide to those not-so-distant places in the Louisiana night that are unlike any others.
Teddy's Juke Joint 17001 Old Scenic Hwy. Zachary, LA 70791 (225) 892-0064 or (225) 658-8029 TeddysJukeJoint.com Backwoods blues club with bands most Friday and Saturday nights, DJ sets on Thursdays
Alex V. Cook is a Baton Rouge writer whose work has appeared in the Oxford American, The Believer, The Wire, and DownBeat. In his book Louisiana Saturday Night music critic Cook uncovers south Louisiana's wellspring of musical tradition, showing us that indigenous music exists not as an artifact to be salvaged by preservationists, but serves as a living, breathing, singing, laughing, and crying part of Louisiana culture. This is an excerpt from Louisiana Saturday Night, by Alex V. Cook.